The Pilot and the Plane

14 Apr 2018, 700 Words

The defining struggle of my life has been discipline — doing the right things at the right time. Through this lens, my past year has been a trail of abandoned gym plans, half-baked projects, and decision paralysis.

None of the life advice think-pieces I’ve read on Medium have really clicked for me, but I think I’ve found a helpful re-framing of the problem that’s working well:

  1. There are only a few moments in the day during which you’re capable of making decisions about how to spend your time.
  2. Spend these moments making decisions about how to spend your time.
  3. Spend the rest of your time purely executing on these decisions.

(1) is my key proposition, and I think (2) and (3) follow naturally from it.


It’s well understood that we’re not the best decision-makers when intoxicated, deeply infatuated, or when deprived of sleep — but it’s implicit that we can “think straight” the remainder of the time:

thinking straight

I can only speak for myself, but when “sober” I’m mostly just a slave to my base instincts — taking the path of least resistance, seeking out cheap dopamine hits, and getting sidetracked by fleeting distractions.

Operating this way, on a good day the stars might align for me to do something worthwhile, but much of my time sees me in mindless autopilot, flicking between the same four websites and floating in and out of activities without making useful progress in any of them.

Sometimes, of course, it’s just weak willpower that stops me from doing what I should do. A lot of the time, though, it comes down to poor (or a lack of) decision-making.

To give an example, I find myself particularly prone to abandoning endeavours shortly after starting them, or changing direction so frequently that progress becomes difficult. There’s a chance that these in-the-moment decisions are actually good, but there’s a much greater chance, for example, that I’m just trying to avoid the troughs of difficulty, demoralisation, and often boredom, that are necessarily part of any worthwhile project.

In the moment, my decision-making is clouded by short-term thinking and unhelpful emotional influences.

I’d like to propose that even when sober we’re not in a fit state to be making decisions the vast majority of the time, and if we’re lucky, we might occasionally find ourselves in a different state — clarity.

thinking straight

In this state we have the mental clarity to “zoom out” from ourselves and see our lives in broader perspective with a focus on the long-term. In complement, we have the emotional clarity to use this perspective effectively, free from unhelpful emotional influences. These, I think, are the key ingredients to good decision-making.

I find my state of clarity on the train to work in the morning. A good night’s sleep is a perfect emotional “reset”, and the commute is a point when my mind hasn’t yet been forced into specific contexts that narrow its perspective. This constitutes ~2% of my waking time in a typical day (20 mins).

I find it useful to use this time to decide how to spend the evening, without which I’d otherwise revert to the dissatisfying autopilot. More generally, I think it’s a helpful time to evaluate the different spheres of life — work, relationships, hobbies — to make sure we’re spending the right amount of time on the right things, and broadly moving in the right direction.


Internalising the clarity state as the only time we’re capable of making good decisions, the rest of our day falls into place — we simply execute. On the long-haul flight of life we are both pilot and plane, but not at once.

thanks for reading!